Bully Pulpit

I might be losing a lot of you with this, but I'm going to go ahead and say it: I hate bullying.

Still reading? Because I really needed to get that off my chest. I know it's an unpopular position, but we can't all be bully lovers now, can we?

If you read much of what I write, you probably know that I'm a Bill Maher fan. If you're not, because you think he can be a jerk, an asshole, reductionist, argumentative, confrontational, condescending--in sum, a bully, I completely get it. When he's engaged in bullying behavior, I don't care for it, not one bit. I don't like to see anyone, including bullies, being bullied; and now, I will not make allowances for him being a comedian, because I don't care for bully humor, no matter what the political persuasion of the comic.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will point out that the commentaries that conclude every episode of Real Time with Bill Maher are some of the best op-ed pieces I see. (I say this as a political junkie whose favorite part of a newspaper or magazine has always been the opinion section.) They're succinct, clever, illustrated, humorous, and they make their points brilliantly. (I don't know how much of the content is actually written by Bill Maher, though I'm sure he, like any politician, dictates to his writers what the message will be.) On last night's show, the commentary was about bullying, and led up to this conclusion: "Bullying is not a masculine virtue. Standing up to bullies is." (Just to add one more parenthetical disclaimer, I'm not positive about the wording, but that's how I remember it being stated.)

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has been in the spotlight lately over the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge as, apparently, political payback to the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ, who refrained from endorsing the governor's bid for reelection. This scandal has led to a flurry of other public officials coming out with stories of Christie's rough treatment of them. Some conservative commentators have defended such tactics as being "muscular" or "masculine," and exactly what's needed in our present gridlocked political state.

Bill Maher went on to point out how nutty this redefinition of masculine virtues is by demonstrating how top bully Rush Limbaugh sleeps in a bedroom so rococo it puts Versailles to shame, asking if George W. Bush never having second thoughts about Iraq is a practice that commends itself to future presidents, and pointing out that Chris Christie is nobody's idea of a "muscular" individual. I delighted in much of these zingers--who doesn't like seeing a bully put in his place with a joke?--but the last one gave me pause.

Yes, it's ironic that masculine, muscular bully Chris Christie is obese, but there's no news there. Most late night jokes about him are fat jokes. But here's the rub: as someone who has heard his share of fat jokes, I can say, from the heart, that they hurt; and if I had any violent inclinations, I might be tempted to channel that hurt into throwing my weight around as, yes, a bully.

In fact, I was far too timid a soul to fight back with my body, and had been well-taught by my pacifist father that forgiving those who persecute me was far better revenge. ("Heaping hot coals on their head" is the metaphor the Apostle Paul uses for forgiveness, in fact [Romans 12:20, quoting Proverbs 25:21-22].) The only fighting back I did was as editorial page editor of my high school newspaper, when I published a series of letters to the editor along with my own rebuttals that castigated them for their poor spelling and grammar. If, by any chance, you who read this were one of those letter writers: I am truly sorry. That was petty of me, and extremely bad form.

The dynamic of that moment in my adolescent life taught me something: give a bullying victim some power, and he or she may well become a bully. I have no idea whether Chris Christie had this same weight problem as a child, but Bill Maher and his late-night ilk are unlikely to be the first people ever to make an issue of his size. I have the same speculation about Rush Limbaugh.

And now to the truth in Maher's aphorism: true masculinity lies in confronting bullies, not becoming one. I hope you were listening to yourself say that, Bill. There's plenty to criticize Chris Christie for that has nothing to do with his waistline; and given that your show is intended to be a forum for political, rather than scatological, debate, I'd rather you stuck to that kind of commentary. It might just make it possible for Chris Christie to tune you in, rather than out.


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